Soares joins state Assembly sexual harrassment probe

The Albany County district attorney has joined a special prosecutor to investigate a broad case of s

The Albany County district attorney has joined a special prosecutor to investigate a broad case of sexual harassment in the New York Assembly, a person familiar with the investigation said today.

The move comes as protesters in New York City called for Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez to resign after four female staffers accused the Democrat of sexual harassment.

“Every man in New York City should be standing, asking for his resignation,” said Esteban Duran, 34, of Brooklyn, amid signs that included one in Spanish saying: “A people united don’t want Vito anymore.”

“Just because you’re a politician who writes the laws doesn’t mean that you can violate those same laws,” said David Galarza, co-coordinator of a community organization called Casita Communal de Sunset Park.

Lopez was censured Aug. 24 by the Assembly ethics committee for accusations made in July. In June, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver used $103,000 in public money in a secret settlement to end earlier sexual harassment claims against Lopez by former employees.

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes asked Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, a Republican, to investigate the case as a special prosecutor. Today, a person familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press that Albany County District Attorney David Soares and his public integrity unit is now helping with the case. The person spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because Soares’ role hadn’t yet been announced.

Soares’ spokeswoman Celia Logue declined to comment. Soares is facing a tough Democratic primary on Sept. 13 from Lee Kindlon, who has sharply criticized Soares’ performance.

Lopez has refused to resign, even after Silver recommended it. Instead, Lopez said he’s the victim of a political hit.

John Milgrim, the spokesman for the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, today refused to say if the board is investigating the case. The commission met for two hours in closed-door session Tuesday. Citing state ethics law, Milgrim said any commission investigation is only confirmed when wrongdoing is found and reported.

Under JCOPE’s complex rules, legislative appointees could in effect veto or limit any probe of a legislator.

Former state Ethics Commissioner Executive Director Karl Sleight said the law allows criminal prosecutors to wave off government ethics regulators so that state ethics enforcers don’t unintentionally interfere with a criminal investigation.

“The statute now allows criminal investigators to put the ethics regulators on hold,” he said. “The stakes are much higher, so traditional law enforcement should get deference.”

Under state law, even if JCOPE finds Lopez engaged in illegal conduct, punishment would be decided by the Legislature’s Ethics Commission, which can’t expel him from office.

“Expulsion is not an option on the table for the existing ethics regulators,” said Sleight, who’s now in private practice.

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